Controlling Anger
in Relationships
(c) copyright 2004 by Chuck T. Falcon. All rights reserved.

Close, trusting relationships with others help you avoid depression after life stresses and help prevent illness, speed recovery, and promote longevity.  But a bad relationship can cause depression and make your life seem like hell.  Unfortunately, men with bad tempers cause a great deal of the stresses women face today.  Find out how you can improve an angry man.

In the best relationships, the partners calmly and tactfully talk about irritations, disagreements, and conflicts without blaming each other and then problem solve, negotiate, and compromise.  Occasional arguments with yelling can feel good when it unearths important issues and leads to problem solving, but it often results in hurt feelings, sabotages problem solving so that problems become chronic, damages trust and closeness, and may lead to a partner feeling very justified in lying or deceiving by omission.

Instead, develop a confiding relationship of sharing feelings, not just facts, and receiving acceptance, understanding, and emotional support from each other.  Research shows sharing feelings is much more important to closeness and happiness in relationships than the sharing of facts.

Problem Solving Skills
Establish regular problem-solving sessions to avoid angry arguments.  Many couples do well with one session each week, but some need them more often and others may need them less often.  Choose a time when neither person feels tired and when you have plenty of time to problem solve without distractions.  Both people must accept criticism and try to learn from it.  Write down any agreement you make in order to avoid arguments about the terms later.  If you fail to find solutions to several problems, you can often make contracts trading one improvement for another (I will do ..., if you do ...).

To hold a problem-solving session or calm down a heated discussion or argument, take turns listening quietly while the other person explains feelings and viewpoints about the problem issue right down to the last detail.  During the other person's turn to speak, the listener may speak only to ask questions that help clarify the speaker's perspective.

Try to focus on the early stages of upsetting conflicts or arguments, even what was going on before the problem began.  Couples can easily blame each other and become frustrated again in discussing the escalating argument, when both probably acted in negative ways.  The conditions before the argument and the early stages are generally more understandable and acceptable and may suggest triggers and early actions or decisions that led to later escalation.

In problem solving and in angry arguments, define problems in very specific, observable actions (actions, words, tone of voice, and facial expression).  Both of you should try to eliminate the communication problems listed in the box.  After each session of problem solving, evaluate your skills using the questions listed here.

Avoid These Communication Problems
  • Yelling
  • Insults
  • Blaming and Trying to Make the Other Person Feel Guilty
  • Avoiding Issues
  • Getting Off a Subject Before You Exhaust It or Find a Solution
  • The Attitude "I'm Right and You're Wrong"
  • Bringing Up Old Resentments or the Past
  • Using Personal Knowledge of Sensitive Issues to Hurt the Other Person
  • Manipulative Communication to Get What You Want (such as deceiving, crying, pouting, sulking, or lying)
  • Nagging, Demands, and Ultimatums
  • Overgeneralizations (such as "You never ..." or "You always ...")
  • Too Many Interruptions
  • Cross-Complaining (responding to a complaint by bringing up your own complaint)
  • Mixed Messages (giving two contradicting impressions, perhaps one verbally and one nonverbally)
  • Dominating a Conversation
  • Too Many Questions
  • Assuming That You Know What the Other Person Thinks or Feels and Telling Them, Interpreting Their "True" Wishes or Motivations, or Psychologically Analyzing Them

How Is Your Problem Solving? 
  • Were we logical and calm?
  • Did we listen well?
  • Did we define problems and solutions in specific behaviors?
  • Which communication problems above were we guilty of?
  • Were we both willing to compromise?
  • Did we brainstorm and evaluate a number of possible solutions?
  • What should we do differently next time?

Both of you should make two lists of specific behaviors for improving the relationship: one you can do and one your partner can do.  Try to think of things that would help make you or the other person feel more loved, more appreciated, or happier.  Consider decreasing or eliminating negative behaviors, too.  Use your answers to these two questions as menus for choosing pleasing and loving activities and as the basis for problem solving or creating contracts that trade improvements of fairly equal difficulty (I will do ..., if you do...).

Anger Control Techniques
Work on recognizing anger early, before it escalates.  Point out when voices get louder, faster, more tense, or more demanding.  Use unkind sarcasm or failure to follow through on commitments as a clue to anger.  Once you recognize your anger, make a polite request.  If it works, you don't even need to express your anger.  If it doesn't work, use your anger to tactfully insist on negotiation, compromise, and problem solving.  The anger will pass if you accept it and express it respectfully.

Help an angry or explosive man to express his feelings several times each day.  This is an important first step in learning to use anger constructively.  Anger often covers up feelings of hurt, insecurity, inadequacy, or fear.  Use "I feel (an emotion) when (this happened)" statements, but not "I feel you ..." or "I feel (an emotion) when you ..." statements, which often lead to critical, blaming comments.  Teach him to make polite requests and avoid blaming or verbally attacking you. 

Use the next two techniques whenever either partner can't maintain a calm, respectful tone of voice and carefully listen to the other.  First, take a few deep breaths, relax the tension in your body (perhaps by stretching), and slowly count until you calm down, whether this takes 5 seconds, 20 seconds, or more.  Imagine your parents and grandparents, a preacher or priest, a respected and well-loved teacher or boss, your counselor, or several policemen are watching how you respond.  If you can't use a calm tone of voice to respond tactfully and respectfully, start counting again and pretend the authority figures are watching.

If this doesn't help, take a time out.  Leave and do something else until you calm down.  Be sure to avoid angry thinking when you count or leave to calm down.  Repeatedly thinking about the conflict only prolongs the upset feelings.  If you tend to blame other people or circumstances for your anger, read or repeat every day, "Nobody makes me angry.  I make myself angry over certain situations and only I can change this."  If a man's anger is intense or explosive, don't bother with counting: he should leave the situation immediately.  If he has ever been violent, he should use time out often, at least several times a week for practice and to develop the habit, even if he feels only mildly irritated and doesn't really need to leave.

Avoid angry thinking during time out by getting things done or doing what you enjoy.  You might work on a hobby, read a good book, or work on projects around the house.  Practicing meditation or deep relaxation is an excellent way to calm down.  Physical activities such as walking, jogging, exercising, or bicycling help by releasing tension.  Don't punish a loved one by leaving for much longer than an hour or two.  Be very careful if you drive a car because angry people often drive dangerously.  Don't use alcohol or other drugs when you feel angry.  If you return and can't use a calm tone of voice to respond respectfully, despite pretending authority figures are watching, leave again and do something else.  As you gradually improve in dealing with your anger, you should be able to reduce the time you need away from the situation to calm down. Whenever either of you feels angry, use the questions listed in the box to help you think more carefully and logically.

Questions to Help Angry People Think More Logically
  • Why am I angry?
  • What else contributed to this state of mind?
  • What other feelings do I have? 
    • Am I feeling rejected?
    • Hurt? 
    • Shocked? 
    • Threatened? 
    • Am I afraid of change or of losing something? 
    • Am I feeling vulnerable? 
    • Bewildered? 
    • Guilty? 
    • Insulted? 
    • Harassed? 
    • Manipulated?
  • What did I expect in the situation?
  • Did I check to see if my impressions are correct? 
    • What is the proof?
    • How else could I interpret this?
    • And how else?
       
  • Am I overreacting or blowing things out of proportion?
  • Who am I angry at?
  • Am I venting my anger at someone other than the source of my frustration?
  • Am I overlooking the good aspects of my relationship with this person?
  • Is the event really less important than I first thought?
  • Am I blaming someone for the anger I responded with?
  • Did the person I am angry at intentionally hurt me?
  • Could a difference in lifestyles, values, opinions, or upbringing play a part in this conflict?
  • How do the other people involved in this situation probably feel? 
    • In what other ways could they possibly feel?
  • Am I being selfish and forgetting the needs and desires of other people?
  • How can I best bring about the changes I need?
  • Do I need to learn to accept a situation that won't change?
  • What would I say to a friend in this situation if I were trying to help?
  • What would a counselor, teacher, or minister trying to help say?
To work on a bad temper, involve as many family members and friends as possible.  This greatly increases your chances of success.  The more people monitoring your progress, giving you suggestions, reminding you, and encouraging you, the better.  Ask them to do these things at least twice a week in detailed conversations.  If you ask only a few loved ones, they should monitor and encourage you every day.  Find out who would accept phone calls, day and night, to help calm you down when you are angry.

Rewards or penalties can help.  You could refuse a date and go out with someone else any week in which your boyfriend yells.  A parent or loved one might offer spending money or the use of the car in any week with no yelling.  Act out (roleplay) situations that typically anger you, so you can practice improved, helpful responses.  If your boyfriend has ever been violent in anger, be sure to roleplay common triggers for his anger.

What You Can Do When He Is Angry
When your boyfriend is angry at you, make a special effort to remain calm.  Take a few deep breaths, relax tension in your body, speak slowly, and keep your voice soft.  Staying calm encourages him to calm down. Say "I'm sorry you're upset."  Don't act impatient, treat him as stupid or immature, nor make a fool of him in front of other people.  If he yells at you or speaks loudly, point out what he needs to do in a positive, rather than negative, way.  Don't say "Stop yelling!"  Say something like, "Let's sit down and talk this over calmly."  Reassure him that you can both work together and find a solution when he calms down.  If you have overcome worse problems in the past, say so.

Occasionally allow him to save face with excuses.  Listen carefully, use good eye contact, and show your attention by saying "Oh," "uh huh," "hmm," "I see," etc.  Occasionally rephrase or summarize his ideas to show you understand and to allow him to clarify feelings or issues, if necessary.  Start with the simplest issues first in order to have some success in negotiating.  Agree with him when you can, praise something good about him, and try to find and express positive feelings about him.  Backing down on one of your minor points can help, but doing so regularly without him also compromising shows unassertiveness and allows him to take advantage of you.

A bad temper is a long-term habit.  You may need to assert yourself again and again for months to change an explosive boyfriend.  Use persistent repetition in making your needs and desires known, requests, demands, saying no, putting forth your opinion, complaining about treatment you don't like, and refusing sex when you so desire.  In a calm but firm way, keep insisting on your rights and the changes you need until he takes you seriously and agrees or compromises with you.  A strong, clear, firm voice sounds very different from a weak, soft, pleading, or monotonous voice.  Repeating won't always work, but people often don't get what they want simply because they give up too easily.  Persistence proves how determined you are.  Focus on the issue important to you.  Don't let him change the conversation and argue related issues.

Occasionally, you may need to repeat yourself more loudly, firmly, insistently, or even angrily to get what you want.  Good rates of eye contact are more assertive than looking away or looking down too much.  Use good, but not rigid, posture.  Don't laugh, use humor, or smile inappropriately when you need to defend your rights.  Act serious.

Remember, polite requests and assertiveness work much better than anger.  Your anger can lead to a vicious cycle of arguments, anger, and retaliation that contributes to your boyfriend's problem behaviors.  Emphasize more positive approaches such as increasing positive interactions, making contracts, and rewarding behaviors you like.


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